Raymond Chandler reviews two Bond novels


#1

We all know that Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler were friends. Many of us know Fleming even interviewed Chandler on a radio program (the only known recording of Chandler’s voice and one of the few recordings of Fleming’s). Some of us also know that Chandler reviewed two Bond novels–Diamonds Are Forever and Dr. No–for The Sunday Times. But few seem to have read those hard-to-find (online anyway) reviews. I present them here.

BONDED GOODS (March 25 1956)

By RAYMOND CHANDLER

Some three years ago Mr. Ian Fleming produced a thriller which was about as tough an item as ever came out of England in the way of thriller-writing, on any respectable literary level. “Casino Royale” contained a superb gambling scene, a torture scene which still haunts me, and of course a beautiful girl. His second “Live and Let Die,” was memorable in that he entered the American scene with perfect poise, did a brutal sketch of Harlem, and another of St. Petersburg, Florida. His third, “Moonraker,” was, by comparison with the first two explosions, merely a spasm. We now have his fourth book, “Diamonds are Forever,” which has the preliminary distinction of a sweet title, and of being about the nicest piece of book-making in this type of literature which I have seen for a long time.

“Diamonds are Forever” concerns, nominally, the smashing of an international diamond smuggling ring. But actually, apart from the charms and faults I am going to mention, it is just another American gangster story, and not a very original one at that. In Chapter I Mr. Fleming very nearly becomes atmospheric, and with Mr. James Bond as your protagonist, a character about as atmospheric as a dinosaur, it just doesn’t pay off. In Chapter II we learn quite a few facts about diamonds, and we then get a fairly detailed description of Saratoga and its sins, and a gang execution which is as nasty as any I have read.

Later there is a more detailed, more fantastic, more appalling description of Las Vegas and its daily life. To a Californian, Las Vegas is a cliché. You don’t make fantastic, because it was designed that way, and it is funny rather than terrifying. From then on there is some very fast and dangerous action; and of course Mr. Bond finally has his way with the beautiful girl. Sadly enough his beautiful girls have no future, because it is the curse of the “series character” that he always has to go back to where he began.

Mr. Fleming writes a journalistic style, neat, clean, spare and never pretentious. He writes of brutal things, and as though he liked them. The trouble with brutality in writing is that it has to grow out of something. The best hardboiled writers never try to be tough, they allow toughness to happen when it seems inevitable for its time, place and conditions.

I don’t think “Diamonds are Forever” measures up to either “Casino Royale” or “Live and Let Die.” Frankly, I think there is a certain amount of padding in it, and there are pages in which
James Bond thinks. I don’t like James Bond thinking. His thoughts are superfluous. I like him when he is in the dangerous card game; I like him when he is exposing himself unarmed to half a dozen thin-lipped processional killers, and neatly dumping them into a heap of fractured bones; I like him when he finally takes the beautiful girl in his arms, and teaches her about one-tenth of the facts of life she knew already.

I have left the remarkable thing about this book to the last. And that is that it is written by an
Englishman, The scene is almost entirely American, and it rings true to an American. I am unaware of any other writer who has accomplished this. But let me plead with Mr. Fleming not to allow himself to become a stunt writer, or he will end up no better than the rest of us.

And now on to…

THE TERRIBLE DR. NO (March 30 1958)

By RAYMOND CHANDLER

Ian Fleming first attracted me for three qualities which I thought—perhaps wrongly—almost unique in English writers. The first was escape from mandarin English, the forced pretentiousness, the preoccupation with the precise and beautiful phrase, which to me is seldom precise or beautiful, since our language contains an interior magic which belongs only to those who in a sense, care nothing about themselves.

The second was daring. He was not afraid to attempt any locale anywhere. He wrote expertly of
New York’s Harlem and Florida’s St. Petersburg, in both of which he didn’t miss a trick. He wrote of Las Vegas and did miss one small trick. He forgot the glass of ice water which is always the first thing a waitress or bus boy would place on your table.

What has happened to him in “Dr. No” is what happens to every real writer. He has found that a novel, a thriller, or what you choose to call it, is a world, that it has its own depth and subtleties, and that these can be expressed in an offhand way, without calling attention to themselves, and be very much alive.

The first chapter of “Dr. No” is masterly. The atmosphere and background of the elegant Richmond Road in Kingston, Jamaica, are established with clarity and charm. They had to be, or the ruthless violence which takes place there would be in a vacuum.

The third thing that attracted me in Ian Fleming’s writing was an acute sense at pace. How far to go, when to stop, when to destroy a mood and when to regain it, when to write a scene on a postcard and when to write richly and with leisure. Some of the most honoured novels lack this completely. You have to work at them. You don’t have to work at Fleming. He does the work for you.

The story concerns itself with a strange disappearance of two British agents in Jamaica, and why they disappeared, when no possible reason seemed clear. All was peace, so why suddenly in the night are they gone? James Bond is sent to find out—a trivial matter, a vacation in the sun. Yeah?

I have a few complaints. The beautiful girl does not appear until page 91, but in return for this she is allowed to live, and the last love scene is more gentle and compassionate than Ian Fleming usually permits. My second complaint is that the long sensational business which is the heart of the book not only borders on fantasy, it plunges into it with both feet. Ian Fleming’s impetuous imagination has no rules. I could wish he would write a book with all but one of his other qualities, yet with a plot which, at least to my world, seems part of what I know to be actual. The sequence is beautifully written, there are many very good things in it, especially detailed descriptions of the locale, the birds, the fishes—Fleming seems to be in love with rare fishes, and other dwellers in the water—some interiors, and a long torture scene which I thought a bit too sadistic, as though, he liked to write this sort of thing for its own sake.

The terrible Dr. No is a strange creature, but his motives become clear and his end very original. The beautiful girl this time is no sophisticated doll from the night clubs. The ending of the book is, as I said, written with an unusual tenderness—for Ian Fleming. I’m glad of that.

For dessert, here is an interview with Chandler that the Daily Express conducted to promote its Bond comic strip.

Raymond Chandler Talks of James Bond (July 7 1958)

By Donald Gomery

Raymond Chandler rested on his bed in a Chelsea flat yesterday and talked about Ian Fleming.
Chandler, creator of the world famous American detective, Philip Marlowe, is a friend and admirer of Ian Fleming, creator of the famous British secret agent, James Bond.
“Ian Fleming’s writing,” he said, “is hard, racy, direct, vivid stuff.” A form of writing most suitable for translation into strip form.
“I often wish,” said Chandler, “that I had Ian’s virtues.” For example?
“Well,” said Chandler, “Fleming can go to a town for the background of a new novel, and in three days he will have mopped up every detail of that town.”
“He will remember everything, and when he comes to that town he won’t make a mistake. Though I did twit him once,” he recalled, “when he forgot to have a glass of iced water on the table while he wrote about Las Vegas.”

“Ian Fleming,” Raymond Chandler added, has the journalistic mind. “I was a journalist once, but I got fired. I’m too slow a thinker. But Ian—he gathers in every point quickly and accurately.
“His hard, clean style is unusual in England. There’s that difference between American crime stories and British crime stories. The British stories lack pace. But Fleming has got away from the prosy style. He’s an exception—he has this pace.
“I’ve enjoyed all his books. The one I liked most is ‘Casino Royale.’”

Chandler, talking about Fleming, was not all praise. “Perhaps James Bond is a little too tough,” he said. (This is not, of course, a new criticism.)
“Bond is a dangerous man,” said Chandler. “Dangerous to his enemies. Dangerous to himself. In real life, I suppose, Bond would not last more than 12 months. His enemies would combine to see to that.
“Philip Marlowe, now—he’ll probably end his days in a street accident. The American crime syndicate would never really go out of their wat to bump him off. He’s not dangerous enough to them.
“In real life, though, I suppose James Bond would not be a secret agent. I’m not sure whether secret agents behave as Bond does. Perhaps not. In real life such a man with such talents would probably be…a director, perhaps. A managing director.” Chandler smiled.
For that matter, of course, there could never be a private eye like Philip Marlowe. “American private detectives,” Chandler said, “are usually sleazy little men doing rather sleazy little jobs.”
He mediates on this character of his, Philip Marlowe. “I am very fond of Philip,” said Raymond Chandler.

Next, an absurdly fascinating question: If Marlowe and Bond ever found themselves up against each other, who would win? (Rather like Matt Dillon gunning it out with Wyatt Earp.)
“An impossible situation,” said Chandler. “But,”—he reflected for a moment—“I’d back Marlowe, I think. More subtle.” And he smiled again. (But I’d back Bond.)
One last question: Who is Raymond Chandler’s favourite crime writer?
I thought he was going to say Ian Fleming, But…
“Me,” he said. And laughed.


#2

Thanks for these great finds, Revelator. Am currently pressed for time but will come back to this soonest.


#3

These are great! Thanks for posting them, Revelator! It’s eye-opening to see an author of Chandler’s reputation being so enamored by Fleming.


#4

A few of my Bond paperbacks have quotes from these reviews on the backcovers but I’d never seen the reviews in full before. Thanks!

Didn’t Chandler tell Fleming circa Diamonds Are Forever that the four books so far had been “getting progressively worse, rather than better”? Seem to remember that from somewhere (if true, it lit a spark).


#5

Pure gold in these. Thanks for sharing.


#6

That’s right Freemo—when Fleming sent thanks for the review of Diamonds Are Forever, Chandler replied:
“I thought my review was no more than you deserved and I tried to write in such a way that the good part could be quoted and the bad parts left out. After all, old boy, there had to be some bad parts. I think you will have to make up your mind what kind of writer you are going to be. You could be anything except that I think you are a bit of a sadist!”

Fleming wrote back “I have taken your advice to heart and will see if I can’t order my life so as to put more feeling into my typewriter.”

In his next letter Chandler wrote “I don’t think you do yourself justice about James Bond and I did not think that I quite did you justice in my review of your book, because anyone who writes as dashingly as you do, ought, I think, to try for a little higher grade. I have just re-read Casino Royale and it seems to me that you have disimproved with each book.”

It makes sense that CR, the most hardboiled and film noirish of the Bond novels, was Chandler’s favorite. His “bit of sadist” remark also ties into his recurring discomfort with the level of violence in the DAF and DN.


#7

Very sad Chandler never got around to reading OHMSS or You Only Live Twice, I’d have loved to hear his thoughts on those.